A man accused of international arms trafficking told authorities that he had taken the weapons nearly a decade ago from areas in Cambodia where a Japanese-funded program had worked to collect tens of thousands of illegal small arms, officials said.
Op Vireak, a suspended employee of the Cambodian Mine Action Center (CMAC), the country’s largest demining organization, told police he had stockpiled 20 AK-47 assault rifles and three 82 mm grenades found in an underground cache in Battambang province in 2008.
Mr. Vireak, whom CMAC identified as Ap Leancheu, was charged with trafficking weapons and explosives late last month alongside two other Cambodians after they were arrested in Battambang. Six Thai nationals were also arrested in Thailand.
Sith Los, deputy police chief in Banteay Meanchey province, confirmed previous comments on Wednesday that Mr. Vireak had taken the weapons from a cache that villagers discovered in Battambang province’s Samlot district.
“He came to receive the weapons when the villagers in Samlot found them underground in 2008 and he came with JSAC,” Brig. Gen. Los said, referring to the Japan Assistance Team for Small Arms Management in Cambodia. He declined further comment.
From April 2003 to April 2008, JSAC worked to reduce the number of small arms in Cambodia by collecting and destroying illegal weapons with a total program budget of 916 million yen, or about $8.3 million, from Japan, according to its website.
By the end of January 2008, 30,360 small arms and 118,689 explosives and ammunition were collected through the program, the site says.
JSAC identified the program’s implementing agencies and partners as Cambodia’s Defense Ministry, Interior Ministry, including the National Police, provincial, district, commune and village authorities, unnamed Cambodian NGOs and CMAC.
Mr. Vireak “confessed that he sold weapons to Thailand on three occasions,” Brig. Gen.Los said last month.
Five Thai nationals were earlier arrested while allegedly transporting grenades, grenade launchers and ignition devices in Thailand’s Sa Kaeo province, which borders Banteay Meanchey.
They were charged with weapons trafficking.
A sixth Thai national, identified as the intended buyer of the smuggled weapons, was arrested in Thailand’s northern Mae Hong Son province on July 21.
Heng Ratana, director-general of CMAC, said in a message on Tuesday that Mr. Vireak did not work in Battambang in 2008, but was working with a team in Kompong Speu province from 2006 to 2011.
“He said that he collected weapons from JSAC targeted project areas,” Mr. Ratana said.
“JSAC had finished their small arms project in 2007,” he added.
But according to the program’s website, JSAC’s weapon collection activities in Battambang province finished at the end of January 2008.
Mr. Ratana said in a message on Wednesday that JSAC’s project in Battambang was “well controlled,” but he did not respond to further questions.
Last week, he said Mr. Vireak had worked in Kompong Cham province since the beginning of this year, as part of a five-person team tasked with clearing and collecting old cluster munitions and unexploded ordnance. He also said Mr. Vireak had previously worked in Battambang and Banteay Meanchey provinces.
Weapons caches were found by JSAC in Battambang’s Samlot district in March and April 2006 and February 2007, according to the organization’s website.
Of 15,488 small arms collected from Battambang from September 2005 to September 2007, 6,170 weapons were from Samlot district, according to a JSAC report—the most of the 13 districts listed in the province.
In an email on Wednesday, Naoaki Kamoshida, counselor of the Japanese Embassy in Phnom Penh, said JSAC had worked to collect small arms in Cambodia from 2003 to 2008 “in close cooperation with the National Police,” and referred questions about how weapons were collected, tracked and destroyed and other details of the program to the National Police.
National Police spokesman Kirth Chantharith could not be reached.
The three Cambodian men are being provisionally detained in Banteay Meanchey provincial prison.